The Party and the Government that Confounded Expectations

Today marked the end of what was surely one of the most surprising Parliaments in modern British history. If we were to rewind the clock five years to the start of the short campaign in 2010, you would find few – if any – political watchers willing to agree that there would be a formal coalition government. I suggest you would find absolutely none at all who would be willing to concede it might last a full five years.

Reading back over the commentary of a breathless and rather stunned media, reacting to the initial coalition agreement and that infamous Dave ‘n’ Nick double act in the Downing Street rose garden, there was immense scepticism even after the deal was struck that it would go even half the distance. From all sides of the political divide, the pessimistic predictions rolled in.

What’s striking, too, is that they carried on coming. Even two years later, with a huge amount of policy already implemented – some of it highly radical and some of it politically damaging (academies, tuition fees, the AV referendum) – the belief that there would be an unnatural end was still widespread. This, despite the fact that the government had also already put in place the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which would act as a monumental barrier to any precipitate uncoupling. Yet in August 2012, less than a fifth of voters believed that the coalition would continue to 2015, according to an ICM poll; even such a celebrated political columnist as Peter Oborne had predicted portentously in March of that year that this “fine” government would not see out 2013.

Yet here we are. March 30th, 2015, and the coalition has completed its work. For my party, the Liberal Democrats, it has been a bruising, painful and largely thankless challenge. Contrary to much lazy opinion, there was little triumphalism as the party collectively took that decision; there was a shared knowledge that it would be tough – perhaps critically so – and that by entering government there was every prospect that the smaller party would lose its identity.

Remarkably, that hasn’t happened. Although the Lib Dems are likely to be severely denuded on May 7th – losing perhaps more than half our seats – the party’s identity remains intact. To me, as someone who resigned his membership in 2012, only to rejoin in 2014, this is highly impressive. What is more, the credit is shared across a wide spectrum of party figures, both inside and outside government. In government there have been important victories for Ministers such as Steve Webb (pensions), Jo Swinson (expanded employment rights such as parental leave), Vince Cable (expansion of apprenticeships and, yes, a tuition fees system that is fairer than the last one), Lynne Featherstone (SSM and FGM), Norman Lamb (mental health), Norman Baker (drugs policy review), and more. Nick Clegg was personally responsible for the constitutional reform agenda – which didn’t go so well – but can also take personal credit for some of the big manifesto-based wins, such as the pupil premium. Danny Alexander can be proud of his involvement in achieving a larger income tax cut for basic rate taxpayers than even the Lib Dems themselves had planned in 2010. Meanwhile, outside government there have been key MPs and members fighting to maintain the party’s independent spirit and identity in the face of constant attacks.

Lib Dems can be proud of what their party has achieved over the past five years. It hasn’t been perfect by any means. But my criteria for being an active member of a political party are threefold:

  1. I want a party that works in and for the national interest – not primarily its own, or those of a select group rather than society as a whole.
  2. I want a party that broadly embodies my own views on a diverse range of issues – principally the economy, civil liberties, the environment, and the place of the UK in the world. (That’s by no means all of them.)
  3. I want a party that is willing to work with others in good faith, even if the process is painful. Because that’s how the best decisions tend to get made.

By all three measures the Lib Dems remain the party for me, and I am more confident of that than I was in 2010. As some more enlightened commentators are belatedly pointing out, they deserve some credit from voters for their troubles. They, and by extension, the government they have been a vital part of, have confounded expectations

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3 thoughts on “The Party and the Government that Confounded Expectations

  1. As someone who voted Lib Dem 5 years ago, and who doesn’t strongly follow politics, this has been really helpful for knowing how the coalition has changed the party, thank you!

    May I ask what led you to resign and subsequently retake your Lib Dem membership?

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    • Hi, thanks for your comment. Glad the post was useful!

      In terms of my own journey I suppose it has mirrored the trajectory of the party in government. 2012 was certainly a tough year following as it did on the failure of the AV referendum in 2011 and the tuition fees debacle in 2010. 2012 was when relations in the coalition irrevocably soured due to the failure of the Conservatives to secure boundary reform and of the Lib Dems to secure Lords reform.

      However my decision to leave the party wasn’t based on any one decision so much as general disappointment with the lack of impact we were seemingly having. I just got tired of it I think.

      What won me back? A combination of admiration for the stubbornness and stamina of our MPs and members despite challenging circumstances, coupled with certain acts of bravery. In particular, the campaign the party fought during the European elections last year was astonishingly brave. Clegg might have failed in taking on Farage, but he was the only party leader willing to do so. And the party might have lost all but one of its MEPs, but it did so on a platform of dignity and unabashed commitment to the UK’s place in Europe. That was a big factor in pulling me back in.

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